If ever we needed a good example of how arcane scientific concepts can (and should) be explained in layman’s language, last night’s “Measure for Measure” event in New York was it. And the sell-out audience of 800 science buffs, including a slew of academics, thought it was great.
Part of the “Big Ideas” series in the 5-day World Science Festival programme, the debate was moderated by physicist and best-selling author Brian Greene, who kicked off with amusing examples of how the term “quantum” was used to promote everything from beds to pet medical treatments (back in South Africa, we’ve even seen “quantum soap”, for heaven’s sake), following up with a nice illustration of the famous double-slit experiment before delving into the serious stuff, including a discussion of infinite universes where everything can and does happen.
His panelists were David Z Albert (a physicist and philosopher, world-renowned for his insights into philosophical questions about the nature of time, space and other problems of modern physics), Sean Carroll (a theoretical physicist at Caltech and author of The Particle at the End of the Universe), Sheldon Goldstein (mathematician, physicist, philosopher) and Ruediger Schack (mathematician), all eminent in their fields and all perfectly willing to defend their views in public.
Okay, so what is it with quantum physics and reality, and why is “measurement” an issue for physicists (and us, for that matter)? Here’s how they describe the problem: “Throw a baseball and you can track its arc across the sky without disturbing it. Scientists don’t have that luxury with quantum particles. When no one is looking, a particle has near limitless potential: it can be nearly anywhere.
“But measure it, and the particle snaps to one position. This transition from the fuzzy quantum world to the sharp reality of common experience is as vital as it is controversial. How do objects shed their quantum weirdness when measured?” The debate continues…
Among today’s WSF highlights is an event titled “Downloading the brain”, which imagines a world where scientists could crack the neural code underlying our visual system, create an algorithm and transfer it to a robot, enabling it to see. But it doesn’t stop there: what if, the WSF asks, scientists could go further and break the codes dictating how we navigate, recognise objects, even think? The panellists will speculate on how we might transfer the code of our brain to machines and ask what would it take to build a true “thinking machine”.
Then there’s “Fun with poison”, in which participants (PM will hopefully be there) are taken on an exclusive after-hours tour of the American Museum of Natural History’s popular exhibition, The Power of Poison, led by curator Mark Siddall and his “merry band of poison experts” from the fields of forensics, food, history, literature and medicine, to discover how poison has shaped the course of human history. (Please note that for safety’s sake, our report-back on this event will be carefully edited!)
— Since its inception in 2008, the annual World Science Festival has attracted over a million people to over 300 programmes in locations throughout new York.